Volunteers upset after being sent back home
BASTROP — Firefighting-trained volunteers from around the state converged on Bastrop and Smithville Tuesday to lend a hand to the beleaguered local firefighters battling the Bastrop County Complex Fire — only to be sent away as federal officials arrived at the scene, leading to anger and confusion about how volunteers wanting to help were received.
“We were at the station getting set up into strike teams, and this guy came up and said that the U.S. Forest Service had ‘assumed control of the situation, and that ‘If you don’t have a vehicle that squirts water, go home,’” said Gordon Greer of Kirbyville, who drove all night Monday to arrive in the town beset by the worst wildfire in Texas history. “You’ve got guys who had driven all night long from Corpus Christi and Brownsville on their own dime, and they turned them away. He was really a (bleep) about it.
“There was a whole line of beige cars that came in this morning, tinted windows and such,” Greer said.
A spokesperson with the U.S. National Interagency Incident Center, Jennifer Jones, confirmed that federal group of several different agencies would be setting up in Bastrop County around 1 p.m. Tuesday, but had not done so when the firefighting volunteers were told to leave.
The question is apprently one of protocol, however.
The Bastrop County Office of Emergency Management announced via its Facebook account Tuesday afternoon that “Any fire mutual aid requests would always come through (and to) Local, State and National fire service and emergency leadership. This message sent as per Texas Fire Chiefs, TIFMAS, IAFC, USFA and FEMA. If you are a fire fighter wanting to volunteer you have to be activated by the National Forestry Service first.”
The Texas Forest Service issued a statement Tuesday evening that it is not requesting firefighters/retired firefighters to report to Central Texas.
“If a person wants to fight fire they can: 1. Apply for a full-time Texas Forest Service position. We are not hiring seasonals as we currently do not have the time to hire, train and certify them. 2. Join a local fire department. 3. Members of local departments should not self-dispatch. Have your fire chief contact TIFMAS Coordinator Joe Florentino at email@example.com”
Neither is the federal team is “in command of the operation,” TFS said later.
“The Texas Forest Service and the City and County of Bastrop have unified command of the Bastrop County Complex Fire. Together, they delegated authority to a Type I Interagency Incident Management Team,” said Holly Huffman with the Texas Forest Service. “While the team has the authority to manage the fire, it still reports directly to TFS and Bastrop. We’ve essentially brought them in to work for us. It’s the same method we use to bring in wildland firefighters from across the country. We call them in and they work for us, helping us fight the fires.”
Several of the volunteers voiced their displeasure, however, at federal agents taking charge at the scene after appeals by Texas Gov. Rick Perry for federal aid following another series of wildfires earlier this year was turned down.
“They’re willing to sacrifice the lives of the people of Bastrop just so they can come in here and pull rank,” said Daniel Miller of Nederland, who had led a group of Texas Nationalist Movement members who were certified firefighters to Bastrop from the Beaumont area. Miller said he and several other members of the group would remain in the Bastrop area to aid with civilian relief efforts.